Summary: Dramatic changes took place in the church at Corinth when the Corinthian Christians they allowed the Holy Spirit to do His work.
As you will recall from earlier studies in our series about the books of First and Second Corinthians, Paul has had extensive dealings with the church at Corinth. He established the church around 52 A.D. when he first went to Corinth, and he lived in Corinth for a year and a half to help the church in its initial months of existence. Subsequently, however, the church strayed from sound doctrine after Paul had left Corinth, and many problems developed within the church and in its witness to the community. Paul wrote several times to the Corinthians seeking to motivate them to make substantive changes. One of those letters we know as the book of 1 Corinthians, in which we read of difficulties in the church involving factions, disorganization, legalism, and failure to deal effectively with sinning members. The church sought to be acceptable in its philosophical, hedonistic culture. Leaders of the disruptive factions thought themselves and portrayed themselves as spiritually superior, but Paul showed them they were arrogant and spiritually immature.
After sending that letter, Paul made a short visit to Corinth which he calls his painful visit (see 2 Corinthians 2:1). Apparently he left the city after confronting the church and giving them an ultimatum to return to sound doctrine and practice. He is thought to have given them a letter of rebuke at this time also, and they were to send Paul their response with Titus, who planned to meet Paul in Troas. When Titus did not show up at Troas, Paul traveled to Macedonia and found him there. Titus brought good news from Corinth—the church had mended its ways and had heeded Paul’s instructions. While we do not know the details, the disruptive leaders either repented or left the church, and the church implemented Paul’s instructions as to doctrine, conduct of worship, and interaction with the culture around it. After learning of these positive developments that had taken place in Corinth, Paul immediately wrote another letter to the church commending them and praising them for the changes they had made. We know this letter as the book of 2 Corinthians. Just prior to the passage we will discuss today, Paul commended the Corinthians for yielding to his instructions and returning to sound doctrine (in chapters 1 and 2). In chapter 3, he briefly discusses legalism versus the indwelling and leading of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian, and in doing so recognizes the Corinthians for the spiritual maturity of the path they have now chosen.
Paul’s comments to his readers in this passage teach that (1) the Spirit changes the way we live, (2) the Christian’s competence comes from the Spirit and not external control of the law, and (3) we experience the glory of God through the indwelling Spirit.
1. The Spirit changes the way we live (vv. 1-3)
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.